#341: The Case of the Historical Precedent – Is Tell No One (2001) by Harlan Coben an Impossible Crime Novel?

Tell No One

I’ll warn you now: even for me, this is niche.  Following a reorganisation of books at Invisible Event Towers I stumbled across my copy Harlan Coben’s Tell No One (2001), which I read while at university, and got thinking about it in light of my more recent adoption of GAD an impossible crimes.  And the above question struck me, but discussing it will require you, dear reader, to have done some rather specific reading…

Without explicitly spoiling anything — there will be no naming of killers, nor any involved explanation of impossibilities — I’m going to have to talk about one specific plotting tool in some classic impossible crime titles.  In order to reduce the scope for excluding people, I’ll keep the classics to two titles by one author — namely The Hollow Man, a.k.a. The Three Coffins (1935) and The Crooked Hinge (1938) by John Dickson Carr.  I pick these two firstly because they use the idea I want to highlight, but also because they’re popular titles most people who might take an interest in this are likely to’ve read.

This is a very considered choice.  Most of you are here for the classics, so while I don’t delight in revealing the workings of Coben’s plot below — seriously, spoilers ahead, I’ll warn you when they kick in — I prefer to retain the essential mystery of the older books ahead of that one.  The point I want to make requires specifics, however, and your reading of those two classics and Coben’s book will definitely be affected if you read the following without having read them.  That’s where the niche part comes in — if you’re one of the sixteen people on the internet who share my dual fascinations with classic-era impossible crime novels and early-2000s American domestic suspense thrillers…dude, today is your day.

people-happy-cheering

I will never, ever tire of this picture.

Tell No One is the story of David Beck and his wife Elizabeth, who are enjoying a weekend away at a secluded cabin when they are attacked.  Elizabeth is murdered, and David left for dead.  Eight years pass.  Then, out of the blue, David receives an email containing a link and instructions to click on it at a particular time on a particular day.  When he does, it opens on a live feed of mute security camera footage from a nondescript street…and Elizabeth is standing looking into the camera.  She says — well, it’s mute, so the mouths — “I’m sorry”, and then turns and walks out of shot…leaving David wondering whether his wife can in fact be alive, and, if she is, precisely why he’s been told in this way.

It’s a great hook, and a hugely enjoyable book.  It was the first Coben I picked up and I think I tore through it without blinking; he was one of a raft of contemporary American authors I got into around this time — him, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Jeffery Deaver, Linda Fairstein, Meg Gardiner, Dennis Lehane — and I remember it being an especially good time for series authors to be putting out superbly inventive standalone titles.  But now I want to look at it from an impossibility perspective, because while the tendency would perhaps be to dismiss it, I think — as implied above — that the master of the form actually set a precedent to allow this one in for consideration.

The impossibility clearly revolves around how Elizabeth can still be alive when her body was identified eight years ago — certain solutions for this are suggested in the novel itself, including the obvious scope for a lookalike (it is, after all, low quality footage; this is the early 2000s we’re talking about here, HD wasn’t a thing yet — and people called it living!) or even a computer-generated mock-up of her, suitably aged so that she would appear to still be alive.  It’s a minor point, and in no way central to my thesis, but this use of technology recalls many of the “radio murders” that bespattered the Golden Age as that technology emerged.

SPOILERS FOR THE ABOVE-MENTIONED BOOKS START HERE AND PROBABLY CONTINUE UNTIL THE END; HERE’S A PICTURE OF A TAN DOG SO YOU DON’T ACCIDENTALLY SEE ANYTHING YOU SHOULDN’T

verycutepomeranianpuppiespics

“Why, yes, I am adorable…”

Okay, now — and with sincere apologies to Harlan Coben — we’ll have to get into spoiler territory to pick it apart.  Essentially, the trick works like this: Elizabeth is still alive, and the attack and her murder were staged by her father (who is the local chief of police, if memory serves) because…well, for complicated reasons some dangerous people were better off believing her dead.  Her father is able to use his position to rustle up a corpse (I am very sketchy on the precise workings of this) which he then falsely identified as that of his daughter (there was probably an exchange of medical records, too), and Elizabeth went into hiding.  It really is Elizabeth in the footage, and the reasons behind her re-emergence are equally complicated and not necessary for this discussion.

The essential trick can be boiled down to three words: false witness testimony.

“Well,” you may bluster, “…well, it’s not a true impossibility, then, not if you can’t rely on the veracity of information given.”  Except, and you may appreciate where I’m going with this now, Carr does this with both of the novels above, which are regarded as among the finest impossible crime novels ever written…and are only impossible crimes because at a key stage in the plot a character lies about who they see where and when.  Without these characters lying — imagine if they’d told the truth about what they saw, or who was present — the impossible aspect of these crimes vanishes as aptly as a killer locked in on all sides yet not in evidence when the door is smashed in.

In The Hollow Man, Charles Grimaud’s brother is only able to enter Grimaud’s study, shoot him, and vanish across freshly-fallen snow without leaving a footprint because it’s claimed he was in a place that he was not.  Or, if you will, because of false witness testimony.  Equally, the murder of the sitting Lord Farnleigh in The Crooked Hinge takes on impossible airs largely because someone lies about seeing his killer at a location nowhere near the site of his murder at the time the murder is taking place.  Note that there’s a clear difference here between some third party interceding on the killer’s behalf and the killer lying about their own whereabouts: countless impossible cases would go up in smoke if the guilty swine turned around at the key moment and went: “Well, of course I’ll tell you were I was when Michael was stabbed in the back in his locked and bolted study — I was in the study stabbing Michael in the back”.

murder_mystery_scavenger_hunts-300x234

Pictured: Not impossible.

So, my two-braces-shy-of-a-score brethren, what say you?  The simple dismissal that Tell No One may face on impossible grounds doesn’t seem quite so inevitable now, eh?  And I genuinely don’t know which side of the fence I fall on this — seriously, if I did would I be writing a post that only  14 of you can engage with?  Also, why am I asking so many questions in this paragraph?  And how do I stop?  Seriously, is this whole paragraph questions?  It is!  Oh, thank crikey for that…

Look, it’s not exactly a poser for the ages, but I’m interested in what anyone thinks if they get this far.  I’ve talked about the bounds of admission into impossible crime fiction before, but this aspect didn’t come up then, and I’d all but put Coben’s book out of my mind until I happened upon it in the Great Bookcase Recataloguing of ’18.  This will be either a staggeringly narrow discussion or a dauntingly wide one, but please bear in mind that revealing the specifics and mechanics of disputed impossible crimes is not the way to make friends: ‘ware spoilers…

Tell No Ones

35 thoughts on “#341: The Case of the Historical Precedent – Is Tell No One (2001) by Harlan Coben an Impossible Crime Novel?

  1. There is a difference in the 2 Carr novels. In one, the witness lies deliberately and in the other the witness himself is deceived.

    • I’m going to have to respectfully disagree, I think: if you’re talking about the misled witness in The Hollow Man then we’re thinking of different people. Someone in that book deliberately lies to hide an identity, and could have resolved the whole thing straight away by simply saying “Oh, when [something happened] it was [person’s name]”. Boom. Mystery solved.

  2. I’ve only read “The Hollow Man” once, a few years ago, and I immediately thought the same as Santosh above i.e. that a witness genuinely believed what they were saying. I think there must be different levels of impossibility: (1) only the killer knows what has really happened and any witness testimony (probably influenced by the killer), however mistaken or in error, is genuinely meant, thus creating the impossibility that the killer desired (or in the case of “The Hollow Man” accidentally creates an impossibility). (2) a witness, not involved with the killing, gives false testimony for their own reasons e.g. to keep their own secrets, protect someone who they think could be the killer (but isn’t) etc, which accidentally creates an impossibility. (3) false testimony from a group of people, all involved in the killing to some extent, which if what they said was true, would create an impossibility.

    • The lying witness in this case, though, is not the one sat in the office opposite. It’s…someone else. This is very much in category (3) — someone who could dispel the impossible angle immediately and knows they’re lying purely to cover it up.

  3. Coben did a little string of novels that followed this pattern: start with a rank impossibility so that the thriller is partly about the unraveling of why this wasn’t an impossibility after all. I really got into them, and then was disappointed to discover that his series novels and most of the novels he’s since written are more conventional thrillers. They’re good, but that little group surrounding Tell No One, man, they were exceptional.

    • Yeah, agreed: there’s a run of five or six books from here which is just huge fun in how they present and resolve seemingly intractable problems. I think it was probably these books that got me looking towards more puzzle-oriented stuff in my reading…and, hey, presto, here we all are!

  4. Not read that Coben book, nor any of the author’s work for that matter, but I might do so now. Anyway, I don’t think I have any problem with a lying witness telling us something which results in, or contributes to the development of, a seemingly impossible situation. As long as other witnesses are honest and truthful, then I feel it’s acceptable – that was certainly the case with The Hollow Man, but it’s been too long since I read The Crooked Hinge for me to comment on it.
    Let’s face it, no situation is actually impossible and there has to be some trick involved, and that can be a deliberate or accidental one.

    • Cool, I’m pleased that there seems to be a sense of “Hey, yeah, that’s totally fine” about this. I think the point made above about the impact of such a revelation is a good one, but at least a conspirator doesn’t preclude things like this from impossible status. This is good news.

      • Didn’t Carr have one of his characters in The Hollow Man opine that fans of magic are apt to complain that the trick, when it’s revealed, is just that – a trick? And that people have a tendency to bemoan not only the fact a trick is just that but also that it’s either not clever enough or, somewhat perversely, too clever. Fell himself then makes a similar point in relation to locked room problems.
        In short, if we don’t want to or can’t reconcile ourselves to deception on some level, then perhaps we should be reading supernatural/fantasy fiction as opposed to detective fiction? ,

        • My only objection to a lying witness is if the only way that lie can be exposed is for them to admit it. Detective fiction is built on the accrued weight of evidence, and if that evidence achieves a meaningful interpretation running contrary to what the witness has said and so forces them to reveal their deception, all good. If we stand around with nothing to do because the only roadblock is their lie, and then the sudden reveal by them kick-starts everything into motion again…that’s a device of which I am less fond.

  5. I have no problem reconciling a lying witness with a book being classified as an impossible crime – after all, no crime is ever actually impossible – they are just very hard to explain.

    Further, I think that this trick is actually one of the fairer ones out there.

    That being said, any crime which has an impossibility that relies on a single inaccurate or deliberately false piece of testimony will not have the impact of an impossibility that involves multiple elements IMO.

    • Agreed. The misdirection or misrepresentation is an integral part of the detective novel, but I think once authors started to treat the puzzle plot as an almost literal puzzle there was the risk of a conveniently lying witness to just be a the panacea piece to get out of any and all narrative difficulties. Plot too obvious? Lying witness. Need to advance things? Lying witness. Have literally no evidence to confront your killer with and just need to wrap everything up? Lying witness.

      It’s a trope of its very own, and one that needs to be applied sparsely and intelligently. A post was recently made on the Facebook GAD group about an impossible crime novel where all four of the impossibilities were the product of people ;ying about what had happened — and, in fact, none of what was claimed had actually happened — and that would run the risk of serious physical harm to any book I was reading…

      • And that is a fair point. It should not be used repeatedly in the way you are describing and, when it is used it should obviously be clued or the result of a natural misapprehension.

        On a related point: when a locked room mystery has a character who is the murderer claim that a door was locked from the inside before it was broken down, do you feel that is a cheat or that it destroys the puzzle? (Let’s leave that it is obviously a crap resolution to the puzzle)

        • There are ways in which that can be used well, but the problem is again that it’s rarely employed intelligently. The Miraculous Mysteries collection from the BL has a story that is superb in its framing but a thundering disappointment when this is how the locked room is resolved (and rather obviously, too). Equally, I’ve read and hugely enjoyed more than a few novels — some of them on this blog — where this I one aspect of how the locked room plays out.

          The “lockedness” is the issue, I suppose, but if this is simply part of a larger scheme, as you intimated earlier, I’m actually okay with it. Only so many solutions to that part of the problem, after all…

  6. Caustic, Rancid and Doohickey, LLP
    1725 Market Street, Suite 3600
    San Francisco, California 94102

    Mr. Alvin S. Jhayjhay
    The Cottage on the Green by the Firehouse
    South Puddington, Stiltonshire
    London, England 146

    Sir:

    On behalf of our client, Bradley Kenneth Friedman, we issue this cease and desist order effective immediately. Pursuant to a reasonably fair outcome for all parties concerned, Claimant Friedman has asked that the following points be made clear:

    1) Claimant has no grievance against the opinions of defendant Jhayjhay or the range of ideas included in the previously unmentioned mode of communication, heretofore referred to as The Invisible Event;
    2) In reference to the current exchange of ideas, the claimant wonders how any murder mystery, classic or otherwise, would not hinge on testimony by witnesses or suspects that is either a. the result of an honest mistake, b. manipulated by the true guilty party, or c. deliberately false.
    3) Claimant refers to the deliberate falsehoods of a character in The Hollow Man and suggests that while readers may have initially been misled by these untruths, the author subsequently provided sufficient motivation for said dishonesty in a manner that did not belie the integrity of the novel as a whole. Rather, the whole affair was brought to a satisfying conclusion precisely because of the pleasing confluence of the aforementioned false testimonies.
    4) Claimant would also wish to have it made clear that he in no way disapproves of what defendant refers to as “niche” discussions in his blog and, in fact, approves and encourages a continuation of such discussions as they provide a reason for living, a fanboy’s geekfest, a pleasant intellectual pastime for other intelligent people.
    5) Claimant hastens to assure the defendant that this cease and desist order has nothing whatsoever to do with Mr. Jhayjhay’s frequent employment of spoilers in his writing. Claimant has been known to employ said spoilers in his own work and acknowledges that he would be remiss in not informing all readers of this letter that Rosebud was the sled.

    In conclusion, the Claimant has no desire to force the Defendant to in any way alter the content of his work. However, Defendant must heretofore and forthwith cease and desist from the repeated unlawful posting of Mr. Friedman’s family reunion photograph unless all further employments of said picture are accompanied by a clear identification of the Claimant as the handsome young man in the upper left-hand corner.

    If you have further questions, please address them to me at our offices. Note that we will not be handling the separate lawsuit over your flagrant utilization of a picture of Miss Pym, Mr. Friedman’s tan canine. You will hear from that firm separately.

    Sincerely,

    Shalimar Doohickey
    Attorney-at-Law

    • Arbitrary, Mumble, and Felch, LLC
      ‘Green Acres’
      Chipping-on-the-Marsh
      Tumbleford R7

      Caustic, Rancid and Doohickey, LLP
      1725 Market Street, Suite 3600
      San Francisco, California 94102

      Mr. Doohickey,

      We are, naturally, delighted to have finally run you to ground. Since you have proven reluctant to repsond to our many missives, we were at the stage of considering dispatch of our juniour office boy by the fastest means modern society has at her disposal — I refer, of course, to the paddle steamer — to apologetically deliver in person another polite request that you reply to our letters of the 8th, 15th, 23rd, and 29th inst. Thankfully we can now return him to the vital task of scraping candle wax of desks before he inherits his father’s seat in Government.

      Putting aside for the moment the matter of your client Bradley Kenneth Octavia Friedman’s contravention of his non-disclosure agreement with Mr. Jhayjhay in revealing the specifics of our client’s identity, we have been directed by our client to address the points Mr. Friedman raises.

      When presented with Mr Friedman’s query of “how any murder mystery, classic or otherwise, would not hinge on testimony by witnesses or suspects that is either a. the result of an honest mistake, b. manipulated by the true guilty party, or c. deliberately false”, our client is content for us to report his verbatim reply of “Not very bloody many”. Pursuant to this notion, then, said parties find themselves in complete and full agreement.

      We attmpted to read THE HOLLOW MAN to better follow the gist of this discussion, but our juniur office boy, upon being sent to take possession of said book, returned with three sherbert dips and a copy of SPIDER-MAN HOMECOMING on Digital Versatile Disc and has not been seen since. As such, we shall content ourselves by agreeing with Mr. Friedman’s point on the content of said novel. We read the summation on Wikipedia and he’s probably got it spot-on.

      Our client also wishes it to be known that aformenentioned “niche” discussions will continue apace at The Invisible Event, to the extent that his devoted and loyal readership may see such a policy as a concerted attempt to isolate them from the intelligent and varied discourse Mr. Jhayjhay is delighted to report usually helps him get through a normal working week. Rest assured, this is merely a consequence of our client — if we may be so bold — over-estimating his own intelligence and insight, often running off into such discussion in a state which we believe your vulgar American vernacular would term “half-cocked”. His impulses, it is regrettable to admit, often lead to what may be termed a “write first, wonder if anyone will care about it later” approach to his “blogging”, and he is grateful to think that anyone still turns up to churn through the content of his somewhat scrambled brain laid out in poorly-typed and grammatically-questionable English.

      It is in to final point of the photograph, then, that we must turn our not inconsiderable legal minds. Mr. Friendman may assert that the photograph is his property and represents an moment captured at his recent family gathering. All well and good. The difficulty arises when our client assures us that he has ful legal rights to utilise said photograph since it is in fact a photograph of his own family gathering, and furthermore one taken by Mr. Jhayjhay himself. He assures us, and we have no valid cause to doubt him, that he is the young lady in the front row.

      To that end, sir, we issue henceforth a legal writ requiring Mr. Friedman desist in all efforts to claim said photograph as his own property. We await your response with no great alacrity, since you have proven reluctant to repsonde in future, and it is only through resorting to such “shyster” methods as these that we have been able to chase you out from hiding to begin with.

      Clearly, however, one of these two must be lying…

      Sincerely yours, I remain as ever;

      Lord Sir Fotheringjay Mumble
      Dusty and Boring

  7. Do JJ or realthog or other members of the group of 14 remember the titles of some of those other puzzle-oriented Cobens? Pointers would be much appreciated!

    • I’m on a deadline, so can’t go looking along my shelves, but memory and his Wikipedia biblio would suggest these candidates:

      1990 Play Dead
      1991 Miracle Cure
      2001 Tell No One
      2002 Gone for Good
      2003 No Second Chance
      2004 Just One Look
      2008 Hold Tight

      I may have included some that shouldn’t be there and/or missed others — is so, sorry. As I say, I’m strapped for time right now.

    • Tell No One, Gone for Good, No Second Chance…er, some others. I seem to recall his first four Myton Bolivar books being quite twisty and puzzlish too: Deal Breaker, Drop Shot, Fade Away, and Back Spin I believe. The later ones get a little samey, but I retain very fond impressions of these.

  8. I skimmed through much of this because even though I spoiled The Hollow Man for myself before I ever got into the genre of impossible crimes, I’m banking on there being enough unknown for me that I actually really get into it when I finally read it.

    For that reason I’ll solely tackle The Crooked Hinge, which you don’t touch on too much. Spoilers for The Crooked Hinge, but you’re already reading a spoiler laced post! I did alway find the fact that there was a witness to the crime to be a bit outrageous. It’s been about a year since I read this, and I do recall there was some sort of a justification, but really?! Why on earth wouldn’t you say something? There is a very late career Fell book that takes this idea of a mum witness to a whole different level, but I won’t call it out as I’m not sure you’ve read it (plus, anyone else could read this).

    With that said, as others have called out above, a deceived or even lying witness is par for the course in this genre. I’d love to cite some classic examples, but we don’t want to spoil a work for the masses. Granted, a flat out lying witness is most often frustrating, but if an author can work in a proper justification, it can work out in an acceptable way.

    • That someone is telling untruths somewhere in a murder story…yeah, I think we can all agree there’s something inevitable about that (and, hey, wouldn’t it be interesting to write such a story where everyone tells the exact and literal truth and yet still the murderer is nigh-on impossible to spot? Someone get Carr onto this idea right away!). It’s the deployment of this as a strategy that obviously matters, and I think the books I mention above justify it well — but, as ever, there are going to be cases where it’s not well deployed.

      I guess all detective fiction overviews are going to be this sort of a balancing cat: “This conceit is used well in Book 1, Book2, and Book 3, but Books 4 through 87 abominate the genre on account of its use…so maybe overall it’s not that great an idea…”

  9. Huh, every now and then at the bookstore I would see some of Coben’s thrillers and think “Huh, this sounds like a neat premise.” But I was too cynical about how he’d follow through to give them a chance. Guess I should change that? 😛

    As for the the thrust of your post, I think what annoys people about that solution is the feeling of cheating. It would be like if there was a 300 page mystery novel where the solution is that the killer just slipped someone a twenty and said, “Say I was here when I wasn’t.” Which I think is a key there, the two novels you mention might have “Oh they lied” as an element, but the main solutions (and I’m assuming the rest of the books) aren’t cogent on that trick. Two of Halter’s books have that “Oh they just lied” as a solution to minor problems and it’s disappointing then, but at least the main trick isn’t built on it. But I don’t know the extent it can be relied on in Coben’s book, though it does occur to me that “Oh they just lied” is also one of the first things you’d think of with that set-up. Hm, needs more stewing on.

    • Ha, yeah, love Halter though I do, there’s one impossible disappearance of his where the solution is “Yeah, no, that didn’t happen — I totes made it up” and it’s…a shame. Within the context of the book it works perfecty, and with a lot of post-relfection I think it fits that particular book perfectly, but at the same time I was anticipating another superb piece of revelatory misdirection…and got complete fiction-within-fiction instead.

      As for Coben — give him a shout! I can’t vouch for much of his later then, say, 2008 stuff, but he wrote some entertainingly twisty stuff at his peak. It’s sort of nonsensical, too, but then the best twisty stuff often is 😛

  10. Maybe this is the problem I increasingly have with the modern unreliable narrative that gets published twice daily: the author is barely required to provide a reason for the narrator’s lies beyond accident or insanity. A classic mystery includes side plots that lead to dishonest testimony, as well as circumstances that give way to lying (such as an innocent suspect finding the body and lying about it, thus confusing the time of death). I agree that one’s satisfaction with any given novel immeasurably increases when the convolution of lies is rendered with logic and skill.

    The first person who calls their next mystery novel A Convolution of Lies owes me five dollars.

    • I realise now that we’re circling back to The Problem of the Wire Cage and the lying witnesses therein — that utilised it perfectly, and may even be about the best use I can bring to mind. “Skill” in that case doesn’t even begin to cover it…

      • Yes, and it brings back to mind the suggestion in your post on TPotWC that it would have been more “exciting” a solution to have Brenda actually do it. Such an ending would have undermined the point of this title and belied the fact that the very best part of it is watching two innocent people lie and lie and lie! And as their lies get them into deeper trouble, they repeatedly say things like, “Damn that murderer and his luck!” The cleverness here is that all the murderer really has to do is keep silent; the innocent folks are doing his work for him! As you say, it’s a perfect illustration of how dishonesty in a witness is supposed to work at the best of times!

    • The first person who calls their next mystery novel A Convolution of Lies owes me five dollars.

      But it’s OK if I call it The Girl who Told a Convolution of Lies?

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